Brace for a bumpy ride ahead, STB warns

Industry leaders discuss fitful recovery and an increasingly blurred future for meetings and events at WiT Experience Week in Singapore.

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The WiT Experience Week culminated with an online-offline event in Marina Bay Sands' new hybrid event studio.

The Web in Travel (WiT) annual conference took place last week. Like most conferences held this year, the four-day event was largely virtual, but ended with a bang — a series of live sessions where host and founder, Siew Hoon, interviewed panellists (both in-person and virtual) in front of a limited, socially-distanced crowd at Marina Bay Sands' shiny new broadcast studio.

This took place on 1 October. The date is significant for two reasons: (1) Event planners in Singapore can now apply to host pilot events for up to 250 people, signalling the reopening of the Lion City’s MICE industry and (2) it marks the beginning of the final quarter of this wretched year – we’re on the home stretch!

But if you think the start of 2021 will mark an instant rebound for the industry, think again. These were stern words of warning from Singapore Tourism Board (STB) CEO, Keith Tan, as he addressed the WiT audience.

“We advocated very hard for the reopening of the MICE sector… but the truth is we are [still] at a very challenging point in our careers and for our businesses,” he said.

STB CEO Keith Tan warned the recovery will be "slow and fitful" and unlike the sharp recovery experienced after SARS.
STB CEO Keith Tan warned the recovery will be "slow and fitful" and unlike the sharp recovery experienced after SARS.

“I still get the impression that people think this will all blow over in Q1 2021. I don’t think so. We’ve been in this situation for eight months, and we’d be lucky to say that we're approaching the half-way mark. We have to be prepared for a long, difficult slog.

“The recovery, when it does start happening, will be slow and fitful. Don’t think of the recovery we had during SARS – which was a sharp recovery. Now, people are scared to travel, worried about hygiene and about large crowds. To be honest, a densely populated urban city like Singapore faces a lot more constraints and challenges in restoring travel than larger countries with wide, open spaces.”

He added: “We are gradually opening up our borders, but even with news of our latest unilateral opening with Vietnam and Australia, that won’t spur a lot of travel because travel takes two hands and these countries still have their own restrictions. So, we don’t anticipate a strong recovery any time soon.”

Ultimately, the message is: be prepared for the long haul. In the meantime, Tan said STB is helping businesses manage costs and reinvent products and services while maintaining the “mindshare” of Singapore as a leading destination for meetings.

Blurring of boundaries

In a dedicated panel on rewriting events, the focus was, unsurprisingly, on digital technology.

Marina Bay Sands’ VP of MICE, Ong Wee Min, joined GlobalSign.In founder, Veemal Gungadin, and tech entrepreneurs from Jublia and Pigeonhole Live to talk digital engagement and the need for constant adaptation.

“If we don’t build something to excite our audiences, someone else will,” Ong said of the new hybrid studio, which was built for conferences.

When it comes to trade shows, however, Ong said the industry is still grappling with digitisation — and how to ‘pivot’ in a sustainable way.

“If we build digital marketplace as a standalone product it will suffer the fate of Second Life and just disappear,” he said. “But, if it’s integrated with a face-to-face event and drives additional value for sponsors as a year-round platform, that will probably work.”

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Industry panel discusses the changing face of meetings and events.

Beyond new tech platforms, Jublia CEO and co-founder, Tan Kuan Yan said he is witnessing “very interesting business models being trialled, where organisers look at performance rather than just selling online booth space or content.”

For Tan, this means zeroing in on what the audience can benefit from an event and charging for these benefits.  

The importance of partnerships and experimentation was a recurring theme, with Gungadin discussing a recent partnership with Tencent to run a series of digital events in China.

“What we’ve seen is a rapid adoption of technology and new digital experiences, which are getting better and better with every edition,” he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like there was a competition between virtual and physical events… now we’re seeing that it is blended.”

Ong agrees that physical and digital event players can all “coexist” in a hybrid world, but we have to be weary of new competitors – largely e-commerce giants like Tencent and Carousell.

“The tech companies already have [online] communities, but they have never had a physical form. They will be the industry’s biggest competition if they choose to compete in this space,” he said. “It’s then up to the exhibition companies to rise to the challenge and reinvent themselves.”

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Accor’s outgoing Asia Pacific CEO and chairman, Michael Issenberg, shared his thoughts on the future of travel.

Even more flexibility needed

A legend of the hospitality industry, Accor’s outgoing Asia Pacific CEO and chairman, Michael Issenberg, also took to the stage, sharing his thoughts on the future of travel.

Confident that leisure travel will (eventually) return, his biggest concern is MICE business.

“People have found different ways to work… and combined with the geo-political situation, the business sector is the sector I fear for most… Conferencing will come back in a form [because] it’s more about the networking and more fun to be together,” he said.

But will we still meet in big ballrooms? Or will hotels convert empty rooms into broadcast studios?  

“You truly have to make every square metre work hard. A room can be converted to an office part time, if you’re in a seasonal market. Now with your public space it's important to be multi-functional than single purpose, in particular for meetings. There will still be demand for big hotels for large conferences,” he said.

Of course, technology can aid this flexibility. “Covid-19 has accelerated trends – the number one being technology, because people now stream everything,” he added. “I was in a hotel in Suzhou pre-Covid and they beamed a hologram into the meeting room so speakers wouldn’t be on a flat screen, and it worked, it was phenomenal.”